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6 Backdoor Pilots (and why they belong at the back door)

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A "backdoor pilot" doesn't refer to some TWA navigator with an unusual fetish; it is a term used in the TV industry to describe the use of an established TV show to test the waters for a proposed new series. Confused? Here are some examples:

1. The Multi-cultural Brady Bunch Spin-off that Never Was

During the final season of The Brady Bunch, the Brady family generously relinquished most of a 30 minute episode in order to introduce their neighbors, Ken and Kathy Kelly (portrayed by Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy). The Kellys had adopted three boys "“ Matt, Dwayne, and Steve "“ in what must be the minimum amount of time required by California law. Sounds like a rather blah premise until you consider the "groundbreaking" 1970s twist: one of the boys was white, one was African-American, and one was Asian-American. Sherwood Schwartz hoped that Kelly's Kids would be picked up as a series, but the network passed.

5 More after the jump!

2. The Original (and more bitter) Empty Nest

Fans of The Golden Girls often rate the episode entitled "Empty Nests" as one of their least favorites. This episode featured only peripheral appearances by the four principals, and instead introduced us to previously-never-seen neighbors Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley, who were going through a marital crisis shortly after their college-aged daughter moved out. Empty Nest eventually did become a series, but only after some serious re-tooling. The producers decided that the original premise would have dissolved into constant bickering between Dooley and Moreno's characters, so they were dumped in favor of a widowed Richard Mulligan, whose adult daughters had moved back home. (Sort of made the nest not-so-empty, but why quibble over the little details?)

3. Tony Orlando goes Quiet

Once upon a time (specifically, the mid-1970s) Tony Orlando's career was on fire; along with Dawn "“ backing vocalists Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson "“ he hit number one on the Billboard pop charts three times. For three years, the trio also hosted a popular TV variety show that attracted the biggest names in show business. Around that same time, Bill Cosby was focusing on stand-up comedy, and often worked as an opening act for Orlando's Las Vegas shows. Flash forward to 1985, when The Cosby Show ruled the prime time airwaves, and Orlando couldn't even get a job on the oldies concert tour circuit. The Cos graciously tried to help out his old pal with an episode of The Cosby Show titled "Mr. Quiet," in which Orlando appeared as the head of the local community center. Later, Tony admitted that the reason this proposed pilot wasn't picked up as a series was, simply, because his performance "stunk."

4. Three Strikes for Who's the Boss

There's an old show biz adage that says "if you throw enough [censored] against the wall, sooner or later something will stick." The creators of Who's the Boss doggedly tried to make lightning strike twice (and thrice) with limited success. In one instance, Leah Remini "“ Samantha's best friend from Brooklyn who'd never been mentioned in previous shows "“ came to visit. She ended up with a modeling contract by the end of the episode, courtesy of agency owner Michael Learned. (Living Dolls, the resultant series, lasted only 16 episodes and is probably remembered best as the launching pad for future Academy Award winner Halle Berry.) Another episode pitted Fran Drescher and Donna Dixon against one another as spokesmodels for a line of pre-packaged Italian food. Charmed Lives, the sitcom ABC created from this equation, lasted a mere three episodes.

5. The Nanny gets a Makeover

Speaking of Fran Drescher, she hosted her own back door pilot in the "Chatterbox" episode of her sitcom, The Nanny. Tracy Nelson portrayed an aspiring actress trying to make ends meet. She was hired as a shampoo girl at the Chatterbox (Fran's favorite salon) owned by Patrick Cassidy, a single dad who seemed to need help raising his son. The show was little more than The Nanny set in a beauty parlor. CBS rejected the new series, deciding that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

6. A Taste of Really Strong Medicine

The Whoopi Goldberg-produced Strong Medicine was one of the Lifetime network's most successful original series. They had managed to land a string of three former major network stars to star in the hospital drama: Janine Turner, Patricia Richardson and Rick Schroder. No wonder they got a bit cocky by Season Five and used one episode to launch First Response, an Emergency! clone about the trials and tribulations of paramedics on the job. First Response centered around Dr. Vanessa Burke, the head of the Rittenhouse Hospital trauma center, who happened to be an African-American orphan adopted by a white family. The family's natural daughter (Katie) was a former drug addict/juvenile offender who had allegedly turned her life around and was now an EMT (hired only because her adoptive big sister gave her a break). Viewers needed a blowtorch to cut through all the plot contrivances presented in this pilot, so it's no wonder the show was never picked up.

As you're watching the syndicated reruns of your favorite shows, keep an eye out for an episode that features very little on-screen time of the main stars. It just may have been the producers slipping a backdoor pilot in for your consideration. Let us know of any you've noticed that we haven't mentioned.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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